He’s gone on to make 110 appearances for Glasgow Warriors to date, earn 57 caps for Scotland and forge a reputation as one of the global game’s premier defenders. Yet Jonny Gray’s journey started out just like any other – down at his local rugby club.
"I’d gone down to Cambuslang Rugby Club with my friend Roy and his dad Chick. We started off playing football and used the rugby posts as goals, then Chick came out from the clubhouse and brought out a rugby ball," explained Gray.
“My first game I thought I scored a try diving over the line, only to realise I was on the halfway line! I had absolutely no clue what was going on.
“I owe a lot to Cambuslang for all they’ve done for me and I wouldn’t be where I was today if it wasn’t for them. I remember playing out on the pitches at half-time at a Glasgow game at Hughenden when I was a wee guy and it’s nice to see the kids doing the same at Scotstoun.”
There was no way that he was going to be content with just being the half-time entertainment at Glasgow matches, though.
“It’s always been Glasgow for me,” said the second-rower.
“When [older brother] Rich signed for Glasgow I started to watch a bit more and go through to games, and I couldn’t be prouder watching him. It’s something I thought I’d never be able to do, and I couldn’t believe it when I got asked to join the squad – Rich has always been a role model to me, and to follow in his footsteps meant a lot. Growing up seeing how hard he trained and the extras he did showed me how hard I was going to have to work for it.”
Having become such an established member of both the Glasgow and Scotland setups, it’s easy to forget that it’s been eight years since a then-18-year-old Gray linked up with the Warriors for the first time. For the man himself, though? It’s as clear in his mind as if it was yesterday.
“I can still remember how nervous I was on my first day - I know a lot of people say it but it is like your first day of school. You’ve no idea how it’s going to go and you want to make a good first impression” smiled Gray.
“I loved it straight away, though. It was such a massive learning experience, and I was fortunate enough to have guys like Snoops [Iain Monaghan] and Gordy Rennie in the academy looking after me. Meeting guys like Al Kellock, John Barclay, Graeme Morrison – these are guys you’ve watched growing up and suddenly you’re training with them. Then you get into training, and you find yourself getting stepped by Jacko and Hoggy time after time…
“That first day was also one of the most memorable moments of my career so far for another reason. I got to train with Rich in a team session just before he left to go down south. I had never played or trained with him before and it was a proud moment because I never thought I’d be at a professional club never mind with my brother.”
Any thoughts that Gray had of a gentle introduction to life in professional rugby were quickly dispelled in December 2012, however, when then-head coach Gregor Townsend called for the services of the ex-Calderglen High School pupil, as the Warriors prepared to welcome Edinburgh to Scotstoun.
Whilst it may have been a shock to the system, there was a network of experienced heads waiting to help the future centurion as he lined up for his Glasgow debut.
“Snoops took me across to the café in the leisure centre at Scotstoun at the start of the week and told me that I might be involved and to get myself ready for that, and to be honest I was bricking it. I thought he was winding me up,” admitted Gray.
"Then Gregor announces the team in the team meeting and my name comes up. So many emotions went through my head at that moment. To be asked to represent my club and my home city is something that still fills me with immense pride, but I was so nervous!
“Al [Kellock] was great with me in the week leading up to that match and the whole team; he just sat me down and said if there was anything I needed or if I wanted to go over anything to just let him know. That’s Al down to a tee – he’s been a massive influence on me ever since I joined Glasgow, as a leader and as a rugby player, but also as a good friend.
“The environment at the club is something that a lot of guys talk about, and it’s such a big part of this team. Even to this day, that’s what makes the club so special – everyone buys into the values and culture of the club and fights for each other. Everyone wants each other to succeed and it really helped me improve.”
That seven-minute cameo in a 23-14 win over Glasgow’s cross-country rivals was Gray’s induction into the club’s pursuit of domestic glory. From semi-final defeat in 2013 to semi-final victory in 2014, the Warrior Nation travelled in their droves to Dublin in 2014 for the club’s first-ever final only to run into a Leinster side intent on defending their crown.
Yet the Warriors used that final defeat to add fuel to the fire, with Glasgow fans needing no reminder about what makes the 2014/15 season so special.
“What a day that was! I don’t think I’ll be alone in saying this – the 2015 title win is one of my favourite rugby memories,” said Gray.
“It had been our goal for a long time. It was on the first slide of every team meeting. That day in Belfast was unbelievable – you can’t help but smile when you look back on that game, there were so many good moments. From Rob Harley scoring early on to how class Naks was, right through to the celebrations and the emotions afterwards.
“Our flights got cancelled when we were coming home, but I think it worked out better because sitting in the hotel with everyone having a beer with the trophy in front of you was amazing. It’s hard to describe how much that meant. Celebrating with your friends, family, and all of the fans with the parade through the centre of Glasgow - on what was a roasting sunny day – it was unreal.”
With domestic success achieved, the next goal for Gray and company was to take the next step in Europe. By this point one of the leaders in Townsend’s playing group, it was the former Cambuslang man who led out the Warriors at Welford Road for a do-or-die clash against Leicester Tigers in January 2017 with a first-ever quarter-final berth on the line
“It was such a tough group and we knew how hard it was going to be – Munster, Leicester Tigers, and Racing 92” said Gray.
“The year before we had Racing in our group and got hammered when we played them away, which made our run that year that more special. It showed how far we’d come as a team.
“The game at Welford Road was one of those days when everything goes right for you. The feeling after that game was something else, and sharing it with the fans pitch side after they had made the journey down made it that much more special.”
A second European quarter-final followed in 2018/19, before an occasion unlike any other in Glasgow rugby history. A league-record attendance of 47,128 packed out Celtic Park for the 2019 Guinness PRO14 Final, and whilst Gray and his team-mates were edged out by Leinster it’s a moment that will live long in the memory of the second-rower.
“Seeing how much rugby has grown in Glasgow over the years makes me really proud. There are fans at Scotstoun every week who have been following the team since before I even started playing rugby, and they’re so passionate about the club.
“Having a final in Glasgow last year was such a motivating factor for everyone at the club. To have a final in your home city is something that might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The drive in that day will stay with me forever – a sea of Glasgow flags, the noise as we got off the bus and then 47,000 people inside the stadium made it such a massive occasion.
“It didn’t go our way which still hurts, but it goes to show how far rugby has come in Glasgow in the last few years.”
Whilst there remains a degree of uncertainty around the remainder of the 2019/20 season, one factor remains set in stone; the next step on the journey that began in Cambuslang will take Gray from Scotstoun to Sandy Park, as the second-rower links up with English powerhouses Exeter Chiefs next season.
“There are so many people I want to thank for making my time at Glasgow so special,” said the 26-year-old.
“I’ve learned so much since coming in, from team mates to coaches and backroom staff. From the volunteers at Cambuslang to my family, friends and my girlfriend Rach – I’d be here all day if I tried to list everyone, but they’ve all made a big impact on me and you try your best to represent them when you play.
“I know how much Rich is looking forward to coming back and running out in front of the Warrior Nation. He’s never stopped following the club regardless of where he’s been playing, and I know he’ll hit the ground running.
“I want to thank everyone at the club and the fans for all their support over the years. You really feel like you’re representing the city when you play for this club. Lastly, I want to say thank you to my team-mates. I’ve made friends for life and had a lot of good laughs along the way.”